media punk

Read below the second part of the interview with Janis Domburs. The first part can be read here.

Should we look at all this in a wider context? That there are repeated attempts from power – with regards to media in general, not only you, Latvian Television and public service – to restrict and suppress media?

A year ago I was one of those involved in a working group at Saeima’s Human rights commission, when the new Electronic Mass-media legislation was being created. I think this is also publicly available on the internet, the final report of this working group (this group included experts recognized by media, such as Brikse [1] , Rozukalne [2], Girts Ozols from Advertisement association talked also about the commercial side) according to me very clearly shows what was identified as lacking in Latvian Television and Latvian Radio so that they could be called fully fledged public service media. This includes both their internal organization and their monitoring, up to the council [3] and society participation. I think this is such a good exposure of this overall framework that does not function properly… So in my opinion if the television’s administration within this framework regularly does not recognize all these conclusions – that public service media do not perform their functions or do not provide the necessary quality… that they are regularly busy dealing with things like – one creative group, old DeFacto [4] team, leaving, then another creative group, UgunsGreks [5], leaving, and there are other people too. Not all of this is known to the public – who is going to the court, there was one case of professional director not getting paid for overtime and so on… So I think that we can make a quite long list of cases, and I am just one of these many instances where the creative process is if not disturbed then hyper-controlled. At the same time we do not see creative development that would be supported by this administration. We have not seen during these years the birth and growth of new stars or creation of bright journalistic projects. All this confirms, yes, that the tendencies are towards this direction.

You have to live and work mostly in a kind of latent conflict, and sometimes not so latent conflict. Do your really want to continue like this? Perhaps you should found your own television.

In this small market it is not feasible. Last summer I had talks with – I think I am not disclosing any secrets here – both big German foundations that are operating in Latvia. It was Adenauer and the other the name of which I somehow don’t remember now. In any case, these two foundations which represent opposing political viewpoints invited me to talk with them after I had publicly stated my ideas on how pre-election debates should be conducted in democratic Latvia. They wanted to somehow promote, help or give financial aid… When I briefly described the situation in Latvian Television, one of the comments was: “Do not be surprised that you as a strong and independent personality will regularly have problems in your job.” I think this is a correct diagnosis. And it is gonna be like this, so I take it into account. And if I would not cause any criticism from non-creative, administrative or political people, then I would think that I am doing something wrong. If I get criticism, then everything is as it should be.

Of course, I have been saying this openly, that the current management of the television from professional point of view has no credibility in my eyes after these years. Absolutely none. And of course if there was a huge market, if there were possibilities and if it was so simple – I would have left. Also this kind of debate show which is not primarily aiming at viewer ratings is more suited for public service television than any of the commercial ones, because for them, especially in the Latvian context, viewer ratings is the question of survival. So even if I would return t this question, I would be conscious of this reality and these restrictions. There are only two other actors in this market, one of which – LNT [6] – has taken so far-reaching steps towards politically positioning themselves that it is not possible to talk about impartiality. So the choices are utterly limited.

In situations like yours, which could more or less be described as a conflict… In such moments, if we look at it from the angle of journalist ethics and professionalism, there should perhaps be a journalist interest organization which could solve this matter professionally. Don’t you think that it is symptomatic that we have already two such journalist interest organizations in Latvia, but the practical impact is virtually zero?

There was a time when I would have passionately agreed to this idea. I would have said that there is a great need for this kind of thing. But the facts are as follows. It is just like with the corruption in this country, where I think it is not so much about primitive greed. A big role is played by some kind of post-soviet, Slavic mentality. In other words, the roots are deeper.

Also in this sphere the roots are deeper. Here we are basically talking about labor union. Labor union in my opinion is a feature of highly developed society, which is leaning towards left. Our journalistic environment… Well, when I started in this branch in the first half of the 90-ies, it was the first wave. It was a very liberal environment, and many left journalism for business, PR, politics, diplomacy. Many of my friends did this. By doing so they at least in big parts excluded the very possibility of a succession, the very possibility for the foundation – that people who have been soaked in this decade-long taste of freedom would prepare the basis for these organizations where the newcomers would be on top. I think this succession got broken.

But why exactly it got broken? How come?

It is because this layer, this generation was exceedingly pulled out from media. Those who were left are the ones who are close to retirement now. And I can’t say that all of them – I beg for pardon, but I think so – can carry on this thing. I think that during these years there have been many occasions that have corrupted them, and they cannot stick to all the high ideals anymore. They have experienced in reality things like self-censorship, media owners’ influence, conformity. So they have been contaminated.

Which means that we need to engage the younger generation!

The newcomers lack experience, and they are not yet able to grasp the whole field. Also the newcomers, well, during the first few years in their career they think about themselves. After that one can start to think about the branch, the environment and so on…I think it is a kind of utopia, to focus on young people in this regard. The labor unions of NHL or NBA are not led by the newcomers, but by veterans. I suppose it is similar in many spheres. There is a huge gap here, and therefore it is not realistic to expect that this branch will by itself all of a sudden create a high level of protection.

It is good that we have these organizations. It is good that they are doing something. But we should realize that a whole generation was depleted in the 90-ies, that journalism continues to be uncompetitive in comparison to other professions, and that the brain-drain or even absence of the brain-influx is huge. One should be really eager to do this in his life, and at the same time with regards to financial side one should be very patient and ready to struggle. I know it from my own experience. I wouldn’t be sitting here, I would not exist at all if a) I would have a family b) successful work and career in Radio Free Europe. If these kind of things would be there, it [my current journalist work] would simply not be an option.

[1] Inta Brikse, professor at University of Latvia

[2] Anda Rozukalne, head of Journalism Studies Program at Riga Stradins University

[3] National Radio and Television Council, now reformed and renamed National Electronic Mass Media Council, monitors functioning of radio and television outlets in Latvia, especially public service radio and television.

[4] De Facto is a weekly analytical program on Latvian Television. A few journalists after disagreements with the management left this program to join TV3 (a commercial television) where they created their own weekly analytical program.

[5] “UgunsGreks” was a popular soap opera on Latvian Television. Though due to financial difficulties it was abandoned by Latvian Television, and then it reappeared on TV3, which is a commercial television.

[6] LNT stands for, ironically, Latvijas Neatkariga Televizija (Latvian Independent Television). It is widely understood that this television is if not fully controlled then at least heavily influenced by Latvian oligarchs. The word “independent” in their brand name can hardly be taken seriously.

Didzis Melbiksis

Multilingual citizen. Europe, Sweden, media, politics.

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